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What 'Mad Men' Taught Us about Substance Abuse in the 1960s

Cast of Mad Men

After eight years of critical success, and having left its mark on television history, AMC’s 1960s advertising drama “Mad Men” is finally coming to a close. Throughout the show’s chaotic yet singularly-focused narrative, the audience saw a copious amount of cavalier smoking, drinking and sex. It was almost as if it was the intention of the creator to make the audience believe that such behaviors defined an era which we were always meant to believe was much more conservative and “button-up”. This assertion can be further supported by the appetites of some of the show’s key players, most notably main character Don Draper.

The High Cost of Being Don Draper

Last February, the actor who played Draper, Jon Hamm, checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse, citing his role as Draper as a contributing factor of his downward spiral[1]. In an interview with Variety Magazine, Hamm claimed that having to live inside the head of Draper (an alcoholic, morally flawed, womanizing advertising executive) had a significant emotional impact on him. Hamm even went so far as to say that he wanted to distance himself from similar roles going forward. Hamm has managed to create a diverse body of work away from “Mad Men” in which he has showcased his talents in lighter-hearted roles.­

It’s rare that a role so deeply and profoundly affects the actor playing it. It’s unclear as to how much of Hamm’s personal issues and family history contributed to his substance abuse. However, if what he is saying is accurate, it speaks to the impact of the show not just on the audience but also on those who have been working on the series since it began. Creator Matt Weiner readily admits that Draper’s character development has taken him down a darker and darker path. Hamm confessed that eight years of being Don Draper just took a lot out of him emotionally.

A Look into the Past: How Society Viewed Substance Abuse in the time of “Mad Men”

It’s hard to say that the evolution of substance abuse treatment has been an easy or ever-forward one. When talking about “Mad Men’s” depiction of alcoholism and the culture behind it, one expert said that in the 60's bad behavior from excessive drinking was considered macho and even romantic. “Mad Men” takes place in a time where addiction was commonly either met with scorn and ridicule or swept under the rug. A drinking problem wasn’t really a “problem” and there was an expectation of men to be stronger than chemical dependency.

A series that has been widely celebrated for its historical accuracy, one of the principal themes of “Mad Men” has been the progressive unabashed drinking in professional and social settings. In one of the series’ more memorable nods to alcohol addiction, character Freddy Rumsen was sent to rehab after urinating on himself while he was drunk. In addition to the occasional allusions to addiction among the constant excess of alcohol throughout the show, Don Draper’s alcoholism becomes a dominant part of the storyline that consistently reemerges from the fourth season on. Credit must be afforded to the series for depicting alcoholism as it was perceived during that time against the reality of what we know today.

The 1960s: A Progressive Decade for Addiction Treatment

In the past 55 years, the addiction treatment landscape has seen some significant and much-needed changes. The 1960's saw some of the most notable of these changes[1]. The decade started with the landmark publication of E.M Jellinek’s[2] The Disease Concept of Alcoholism. This was followed in 1961 by a joint report from the American Bar Association and American Medical Association entitled Drug Addiction: Crime or Disease which called for community-based treatment programs. As the decade progressed, we saw the American Psychiatric Association urge health insurance companies to start covering alcoholism treatment and insurance companies complying. It can be argued, in fact, that the 1960s was the starting for point institutional recognition of alcoholism as a disease.

Children of the 60's Are Often Becoming the Addicts of Today

As senior citizens are becoming the fastest-growing segment in the country, we’re seeing a resurgence of the stoic patient that once thought treatment in no way helped or that it was somehow unnecessary. Many of these patients come from a time in which people tried to deal with problems on their own no matter who they were. Unfortunately it’s proven time and again that chemical dependency is not a matter of will power and requires not only the assistance of others, but expert help.

Mad Men’s Lasting Legacy

“Mad Men” will always be indicative of a time in which people suffered in silence while progressivism lurked just around the corner. From an addiction standpoint, this means that people weren’t necessarily allowed to admit they had a problem or they would lose their friends, their careers and their pride. This conflict was personified perhaps nowhere better than in Don Draper’s prolonged torment, walking the fine line between masculinity and composure and a desperate addiction, sometimes pulling it off and sometimes falling apart. In any case, it would have been interesting to see how the Don Drapers of the world would have fared after rehab. By virtue of their hardened personality and their denial of needing help, we will likely never know.

Still, even if today there exists negative stigma against addicts - where many still easily believe that addiction is simply a choice and that a victim must have been a dangerous individual, anyhow -a show like Mad Men helps us recognize that we have come a long way in speaking openly about drug addiction.

We at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches are committed to offering compassion to stigmatized addicts and to providing quality addiction care to our patients. We too have come a long way: offering a comprehensive spectrum of treatment from intervention to detox to rehab to aftercare, we have become one of the nation’s leading addiction treatment organizations. In addition to our broad range of treatment options, we offer specific recovery programs for alcohol addicts. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction, please contact us. We're here to help.